Embracing experiential learning

Category: MBA

First published on FT.com (Financial Times) on November 17th 2012

Stanford is known for teaching the ‘softer skills’ of business management. In the 1970s, courses like “Interpersonal dynamics” were already being taught, focused on improving students’ ability to manage relations with others.

These softer skills are now taught in diverse ways. For example, Irving Grousbeck (inventor of the search fund – the enrepreneurship/investment vehicle model ) and Joel Peterson (chairman of JetBlue) teach students how to replace themselves as chief executives when their start-ups grow too large, while Dan Klein and Scott Doorley teach improvisation techniques to manage meetings better.

What these classes all have in common is that they are experiential in nature: students do not simply learn theory, but practise taking action. Let me describe three of my experiential classes.

In one of my global strategy classes, Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, ran a simulation of negotiations about economic sanctions for Iran. Before the class, each student was assigned a role within the administrations of eight countries: the G5, Germany, Brazil and Turkey. Our aim was to come to a multi-lateral agreement to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, while protecting our national interests.

After an opening speech by each country’s head of state, 66 of us began negotiations. Polite mayhem ensued. The eight foreign secretaries haggled but reached gridlock. Any progress was undermined by side agreements made by defence secretaries and heads of treasuries. The class failed to reach an agreement that would stall Iran’s nuclear programme. Ms Rice noted that no class of hers had ever reached a satisfactory agreement in this exercise.

As a group we considered the negotiating pitfalls into which we had tumbled. We realised that while each country had stated their opening stance, none had revealed their motivations for it. This lack of transparency made it incredibly difficult to establish a mutually beneficial solution, because no party knew what mattered most to their counterparts. Moreover, we had debated each aspect of the sanctions one by one, picking over Iranian fuel sanctions before talking about restricting capital flows in banks. It became apparent that we would have been far more likely to reach a solution if we had debated packages of options, which allows each party to compromise on some fronts but benefit on others.

Another day, I turned up to my “managing groups and teams” class and was told I was going to be a ‘base-level worker’ in a class exercise. With three others I had to recreate and enlarge a tiny sketch we had been given. The sketch seemed a jumble of meaningless doodles. Other small groups were working on similar assignments.

Some of our classmates, meanwhile had been assigned as ‘managers’ and rushed around giving instructions. My group quickly grew frustrated – it seemed like there was not enough work for each of us, that the task was meaningless and that our managers were running around like headless chickens.

Halfway through the exercise we paused to all convene outside. Everyone had the chance to voice their concerns. We ‘base-level workers’ described how demotivating it had been to toil on a seemingly pointless, poorly managed task. Our ‘managers’ explained how overwhelmed they were by their own tasks, many of which I hadn’t even realised existed; for example, they had to manage a complex project budget. The managers also explained the purpose of the small sketches: amalgamated, they would form a large, coherent painting.

We agreed on a process for the second half of the project which made a significant difference – everything worked almost flawlessly. We had a sense of purpose and knew what was required of us. I learned how helpful it can be to have a mid-point crisis in any project. Some of the most effective managers I have met manufacture moments of ‘crisis’ to ensure that their employees focus on a common goal and pursue it with urgency.

At 8am every Wednesday, I show up in room M103 with five of my classmates for a leadership laboratory. It is a weekly class that is self-regulated – there is no professor. Beforehand, we read a business case which assigns us characters for a role-play. One person is designated as leader for the day. Last week it was my turn to lead. That case described a company’s restructuring process and assigned all six of us the roles of vice-presidents within the organisation. Our task was select which three of our junior managers, from a pool of eight potential candidates, should lead the restructuring process, and which five we would have to fire; we were instructed to try to defend the employees we had previously managed.

Before we started the discussion, we turned on the video camera; every session is filmed because video footage helps us analyse our behaviour. As soon as the role-play began, a power struggle emerged. One individual gained ground through assertiveness, while another won an ally by adopting a casual approach.

As the timer ticked down, passions flared – we were all so engrossed in our roles that the prospect of terminating a loyal employee seemed horrific. We ended up resorting to a vote and three managers were selected. We then spent time giving each other incredibly candid feedback about how the actions of others in the group had made us feel. For example, I felt that one person’s tone was condescending, while Rachel pointed out that I had not been concise. These frank perspectives are invaluable, for people hardly confess what they really think. It is only in this leadership laboratory where nothing is veiled and nothing is off the cards.

I can finish by endorsing the success of the experiential learning model. It is so powerful because it ingrains behaviours in us and gives us the confidence to play with different interpersonal styles. Before starting my MBA, I worried that I might be returning to a realm of purely theoretical academics. I also thought ‘experiential’ learning was simply an over-used buzzword that was thrown about as haphazardly as ‘leverage’. Yet the reality is that Stanford’s experiential approach prepares us for the most challenging conversations in real life. The feedback from these sessions can be hard to hear, but it never fails to change one’s gear.


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